Issue 305: 2021 12 16: Bad Losers

16 December 2020

Bad Losers

Playing the game.

By J.R. Thomas

Here is a new venture for this column: sport.  Many years ago a good friend of your correspondent was interviewed for an enticing job in the City.  When he turned up (having of course disclosed his age, sex, marital status, places of education, all things forbidden now) he was taken aback to discover in the interview room a panel of five senior directors of the illustrious organisation that was the object of his desires.  But our man was a confident young chap and not to be phased by this.  He answered the questions thoughtfully and spoke articulately. Then there was a slight relaxation of atmosphere and the next question was “And what do you like to do on Saturday evenings?”  He knew “disco dancing” would set the wrong tone entirely and “quiet reading of economics texts” would not be believed, so he gave them the truth: “Some good sport in front of an open fire”.  He meant, of course, football on Match of the Day, and most of the five probably knew that was what he meant.  But one of them thought of some other meaning, and burst out laughing, saying “Don’t we all?”.  At which point unseemly giggling spread along the panel. Excepting the chairman; who looked sternly at him, and said “Football is not a serious sport, Mr H”. 

If that interviewer is still alive he must be astonished to see his organisation was for fifteen years one of the major sponsors of English football; and he might well wonder what the justification was for that.  Sport was taught in schools in the UK almost from the beginnings of formal education, for the very good reason that it combined the admirable merits of winning with the necessity of losing gracefully.  “Play up, play up, and play the game” indeed; losers shook hands and congratulated the victors; the victors in turn were modest in their triumph and treated the losers with grace.  And everybody got some fresh air and exercise.  In reality of course, winners often were far from modest and losers did not always behave with grace, but the point was that they all knew how they were supposed to behave and breaches of the etiquette induced a sense of guilt.  Maybe the boards of great mercantile organisations, even in the 1990’s, mostly old, male, and public school educated, still thought that way and that to be associated with football would bring much free publicity and a positive feeling about the behaviour of both bankers and footballers.

Of course, that has all gone wrong.  Football is all to do with money now; money in vast amounts.  The only positive note that might be struck is that football, as with most professional sports, rewards the players (not so much the coaches) strictly on the basis of talent.  Young people of skill can get very rich very quickly.  (The same indeed might be said of financial institutions; a personal connection through parent or school might get a young person a foot on the bottom rung, but unless they have talent, real talent, they are unlikely to go further.)   

If you want your children to learn gracious habits or nice manners football will not help much.  And as we learnt at the weekend, those who watched the final F1 Motor Sport Grand Prix of 2021, motor racing will not help the acquisition of civilised ways either.  For those who did not watch, the driver world championship unusually depended on this final race of the season, with the UK’s Lewis Hamilton and The Netherland’s Max Verstappen starting in places 1 and 2, with exactly the same number of points. Whoever won the race, or came in before the other, would be World Champion.  Hamilton drives for Mercedes and Verstappen for Red Bull.  Mercedes had already won the Constructers World Championship, so nothing to fight for there.  This was one man combat, the rising star, Verstappen, against the reigning champion, Hamilton.

It was a very exciting race which became controversial because of an accident which meant it had to be slowed, leaving all to play for on the final lap.  Movies have been made with less tense endings.  The winner was Verstappen.  Both drivers made a controversial manoeuvre, Hamilton at the beginning, Verstappen at the end.  Hamilton was not happy with the result but he has always seemed to be a man of decent manners and he immediately congratulated Verstappen, who was properly graceful in victory.

But off the podium, the owners and sponsors were not so well behaved.  The Mercedes team director stormed off, refusing to speak to anybody. His colleagues angrily let it be known they were challenging the result and would be consulting their lawyers.  The Red Bull team danced in their control bunker, but made it known that if there were an attempt to reverse the result they would be appealing, counter appealing, and also involving mi’ learned friends.  Hamilton was obviously spoken to, and soon let it be known that he felt the race had been stolen on a technicality.  The governing body of the sport received Mercedes appeal but within two hours threw it out, only for Mercedes to file another challenge.  (At the point of writing Mercedes have grumpily intimated they probably will let matters drop, and Mr Hamilton has hinted he may retire.) 

And what is this fundamentally all about?  Egos of course, not just the drivers – in fact F1 drivers tend to be decently behaved all in all, though it might be said they can afford to be – but also the team managers and the team owners.  But primarily money.  Of course.  Both contenders have a lot of money riding on these results, though it is true that Mercedes more so because they are motor manufacturers and engine builders on a massive scale.  Red Bull are in it financially for the promotion of their product, to associate their booster drink with success and glamour.  Mercedes want all that too, of course, but also their upmarket engineering is driven by the success of the motor racing team.  Bad behaviour is a very prominent feature of F1, there are verbal fisticuffs and rudeness after every race, and it is hardly setting an example of traditional sportsman like manners.

Alas, these ways are becoming increasingly common in professional sport.  Rugby seems better than most, and cricketers have until recently generally behaved themselves.  Although there have always been some sub-texts in national and some county games of “sledging”, or beastly muttering designed to upset opponents, at the end cricketers almost always left the pavilion as friends.  Not so much now though, alas. Horseracing is still a gentleman’s and ladies sport, though there are usually one or two jockeys not noted for gentility (yes, Mr Piggott). 

But there is a message here.  Money distorts.  Amateurs, playing for love of the game, will usually be the best examples of sportsmanlike behaviour to the young and impressionable.  So next season, take your children to a village or minor counties cricket match.  They will learn all about thoughtful tactics, intelligent manoeuvring, and constant courtesy to opponents.  Plus, they will get a very nice tea.  And after all, it’s only a game.

Tile photo:  by Jesper Giortz-Behrens on Unsplash

Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list